Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Drive Along the Neuse River - Oriental, NC

New Bern, NC is located at a point where the Neuse River starts to widen out and begins to merge into what eventually becomes the massive Pamlico Sound, the huge body of water protected by North Carolina’s Outer Banks, one of the great sailboat cruising grounds and fisheries of America. We spent Saturday beginning our exploration of this region. We’re camped at a small, inexpensive campground called Moonlight Lake RV Park just east of New Bern on the north side of the Neuse River. It’s the kind of place working people tend to stay because it’s inexpensive. Sometimes they’re pretty run down, but this one, while spare, is pleasant enough, and clean, with cable and Wi-Fi as well as one of the most pleasant rest room/laundry facilities we’ve encountered. It’s a good place to stay for an “in between” week.

We headed out following SR 55 eastward along a broad peninsula between the Neuse River and the Pamlico. It’s a broad, flat agricultural region with turf farms seeming to dominate. Roads lead off both sides sporting signs touting real estate developments featuring river access and their own marinas. The towns along the way – Olympia, Grantsboro, Bayboro, Stonewall – begin to appear somewhat more prosperous the closer you get to water. As we head into Oriental, however, we enter a different world.

Oriental bills itself as “The Sailing Capital of North Carolina.” Lovely homes line the waterfront. A large yacht basin and brokerage dominates the waterfront. The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway runs right to the town dock. Oriental has a number of shops catering to people arriving by yacht and by car. At a local restaurant a large casual group of people are enjoying beer, wine, and oysters – a meeting of the Neuse Yacht Association. They all look as if they just stepped off their sailboats to attend the event. If you don’t look too closely, you’d think that all is well.

But just beneath the surface, and not very far beneath at that, you can see the trials besetting our society effecting life down here in one of the out of the way treasures that have made our country so great. Too many houses and boats are for sale, condo projects appear empty, and, for this bright, sunny, brisk first Saturday in spring afternoon, there aren’t enough people on the streets. We take a bridge, high enough to permit tall masts to pass underneath, across a contributory creek to a different world. Here, older cottages and the decaying trailers of longer term residents can be found. Life here never reached the heights from which some now are retreating, but the waterman’s life has a long and storied history in this region. For one view of it, read Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides, which, while it takes place in South Carolina, provides a romantic and stark view of this world.

As we have been driving along, I’ve noticed a series of signs for a place billed as Dawson Creek, not the one made famous in the TV show, but a local development. I swing in through a handsome brick entry with a gatehouse. The gates are lifted, seemingly for good. Advertised as an “820 acre multi-phased boating community located on the Inner Banks,” a brochure, available in a mailbox at the entrance describes planned home sites, a clubhouse, and a waterfront park, with a 634 slip marina to come. We drive through Dawson Creek along sweeping roads. Lots on either side have tall southern pines growing on them with electric modules at appropriate distances. On many of the trees are signs giving the names and hometowns of the lot’s owners. Place names like Cape May Courthouse, NJ, Oyster Bay, NY, Amherst, MA, and other tony towns in the northeast predominate. At present, it appears that one or two houses have been completed while a very few more are currently under construction. The general impression of this development is that it represents the dashed hopes of potential residents, developers, and the hundreds of working people who would have built the homes, maintained the houses and boats, and provided for the daily comforts of the residents. Dawson Creek seems to stand, or better still lie, for all the losses we’ve sustained as a society in the past few years. There’s no telling when the building will begin again in this quiet and potentially lovely enclave.

We drive back through Janeiro and Arapahoe to Grantsboro where we regain route 55 for our drive back to the RV park. Along the way, I’ve noticed a number of small, private cemeteries. Who knows why these family plots have grown up along the road? They are mostly neat and well-maintained with fresh flowers on many of the stones. Perhaps these small, isolated graveyards stand as a mute commentary on what’s happened to all of us.

Or should we be more hopeful?